Psalm 124; Daniel 2:1–33; 1 John 3:11–24

Originally published 11/14/2017. Revised and updated 11/13/2019.

Psalm 124: The opening verse of this psalm of thanksgiving for what appears to be a military victory has the leader addressing the congregation:
Were it not for the Lord Who was with us
—let Israel now say

And the congregation replies:
were it not for the Lord Who was for us
when people rose against us,
then they would have swallowed us alive
when their wrath flared hot against us. (2, 3)

The metaphor of death by fire is followed by a metaphor of drowning by flood:
Then the waters would have swept us up,
the torrent come up past our necks.
Then it would have come up past our necks—
the raging waters. (4,5)

It is God who has rescued them—expressed in a third metaphor—this one of escaping from an animal trap set by their enemies:
Blessed is the Lord,
Who did not make us prey for their teeth.
Our life is like a bird escaped
from the snare of the fowlers.
The snare was broken
and we escaped. (6,7)

The song ends on the famous expression of the great truth:
Our help is in the name of the Lord,
maker of heaven and earth. (8)

This psalm and its unsurpassed poetic metaphors is a beautiful encouragement for all who find themselves in a perilous situation and then are rescued. The three different metaphors remind us that God will rescue us from all kinds of different situations. In our increasingly hostile post-Christian culture, this psalm applies not just to physical peril but to emotional danger as well. We are reminded that even when all seems lost, God is still there. And not only there, but through Jesus Christ is our great rescuer.

Daniel 2:1–33: King Nebuchadnezzar [Neb] riven to insomnia by his disturbing dreams. The court officials offer to interpret the dream but only if he tells them what the dream was. Neb replies that if they’re as insightful as they say they are they should be able to tell him both the dream and its interpretation. If they fail, “you shall be torn limb from limb, and your houses shall be laid in ruins.” (5) But great rewards await if they succeed. They are understandably hesitant to take the king up on his offer.

Neb tells them they are stalling for time, but the only way he’ll trust their interpretation is if they can also tell him what he dreamt. The officials state that no one can accomplish the task because “The thing that the king is asking is too difficult, and no one can reveal it to the king except the gods, whose dwelling is not with mortals.” (11) The king is outraged and demands their execution. Just about the time that’s about to happen, “Daniel responded with prudence and discretion to Arioch, the king’s chief executioner” (14) asking why the executioner was in such a rush. Daniel asks for time and that he will both reveal and interpret the king’s dream.

Daniel and his three companions pray fervently in what is essentially a psalm of supplication and then thanksgiving because God has revealed both the dream and interpretation to him:
[God] reveals deep and hidden things;
    he knows what is in the darkness,
    and light dwells with him.
To you, O God of my ancestors,
    I give thanks and praise,
for you have given me wisdom and power” (22, 23a)

Daniel asks the executioner to bring him to the king so he can tell the dream and its interpretation. The key to this entire story is what Daniel first tells the king: No wise men, enchanters, magicians, or diviners can show to the king the mystery that the king is asking,  but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and he has disclosed to King Nebuchadnezzar what will happen at the end of days.” (27, 28)

Daniel makes sure that the king understands that “this mystery has not been revealed to me because of any wisdom that I have more than any other living being” (30) but that the insights come from his God.

Daniel then tells the king that he dreamt of looking at a huge statue: “The head of that statue was of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its middle and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay.” (32, 33)

[The interpretation of this dream follows tomorrow. Suffice it to say, people cannot leave well enough alone and continue to reinterpret it to fit their own scenarios.]

I take this story as a reminder that it is God who has given us humans the talent and capability not necessarily to interpret dreams but to use the scientific method to explore the world around us and the skills to create ever more impressive technology based on that science. Our gifts of knowledge and insights are truly God-given. It is God “reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what is in the darkness.” Unfortunately, most of us think these insights arise from our own internal smarts, which leads inevitably to hubris and pride.

1 John 3:11–24: At its heart, John’s message is really quite simple: “For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.” (11) This love is the mark of the true Christian and “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another.” (14a) In fact, he continues, “Whoever does not love abides in death.” (14b) There is no ambiguous gray for John. It’s all extremely black and white.

Christ is the great example of true Christian love: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” (16) And if we truly love others as Christ has loved us, we will love “not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” (18) In fact, he asks, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (17)

Personally, I stand rightly accused as a Christian who has been pretty poor at this love in action thing. If we Christians were truly what we say we are churches would be island of love in an unloving world. Yet, churches are too often bastions of unloving. And I know that all too often I am guilty of failing to love my fellow believers. John is talking right to me when he says, “whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” (20)

The reading ends with yet another verse that I memorized as a fifth grader back in 1957. I think it is the core definition of what it really means to be a Christian: “And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.” (23) In the end we don’t really need fancy theology. Belief in what Jesus did for us and the resulting love that emerges from that belief is wholly sufficient.

This passage is why I like John so much better than James: our action arises out of love. He delivers the same message as James, but positively, not via the implicit threat of “faith without works is dead.”

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